“Good Morning,” says the Dinosaur on the Writing Desk

Here’s to words. Many, many words. Good morning to all of you starting out this Monday at your own desks, and for all you other writers out there — happy writing!

The Never-Ending Line

He was an artist with no name. When your work speaks for you, who needs a name? The unnamed artist’s tool of choice was charcoal, for its unique ability to smoothly blend dark and light together. That’s what he liked about it. Its mysteriousness, its messiness, the way that the black smudged into muddled shades of grey.

On the day that he started his masterpiece, the unnamed artist prepared for several hours. He stared at the white paper before him. The charcoal sticks were lined up alongside it, symmetrically. Everything was perfect and untouched.  He wasn’t nervous in the least; he was ready. He began by drawing a solid dot in the corner of the page, to mark the beginning.

From that dot, he drew a landscape. Everything was connected in one long, continuous line of charcoal. That was the challenge he’d set forth on, that day: to create an entire world in one line, never separating from the paper’s thin surface, never lifting his hand.

Mountains, oceans, forests, volcanoes, all of it. One line.  Continuous.  Connected.  Looping back toward the center, he drew a hunched over figure. This figure didn’t look quite right, so he edited it to look a bit more, well–what was it?

Oh, it was a human being. Of course.

That was good, but it wasn’t enough. A single human? No, it was lonely.

He drew another figure beside it. Two human beings stood out in the center of the paper, as if they were the only thing that mattered. They were prominent, the most important piece of the drawing–but they were still connected to the unbroken line. Trapped. Up until this point, he’d been in control of the picture. However, any artist will admit that, at some point, one loses that control. In order to succeed, the art must take on a life of its own. The artist stopped and waited for this to happen, tensely pressing his hand against the paper, unconsciously smudging it.

It didn’t. The figures were still connected to the line, and they looked miserable about it. The unnamed artist struggled to fix the problem and disconnect them, but it was too late. You can’t erase charcoal.

He started drawing again. He drew large crowds of people to accompany them, but each one was equally miserable, equally stuck. He couldn’t draw them separately from the line—to do so would be to betray the entire philosophy that had created the drawing—but he wanted them to separate themselves from it, to actively pursue freedom.

They continued to be stuck, and they became miserable. They became angry. They hated him for creating them. They denied his existence. The most livid looking ones became smudged beyond recognition.  In his head, the artist could hear their voices. They demanded answers. They wanted easy solutions. If they didn’t get these things, they loathed him for it, screamed at him. The drawing he’d worked so hard on became painful to even look at. All he could do was accept the tragedy for what it was. He slowly accepted the idea that maybe he just had to walk away from his artwork, put it away, never look back.

He noticed something.

Without realizing it, he’d drawn one of the figures separate from the line, completely by accident—and that lone figure was smiling. Unfortunately, the figure didn’t see the artist. It was looking for him, sure—but in the wrong direction.

But that didn’t matter, because it was smiling, and it was guiding the others in a new direction toward the corner of the page—the place where it could escape from its white prison, leap out into a world beyond its initial understanding, and find independence. It forged its own path. Others followed. Other unique characters appeared, inspired by the first one, and they created their own directions, their own paths.

The figures weren’t doomed. Deep inside, they knew what the right choice was. They knew how to escape from the continuous line. Even if the smiling ones couldn’t see him, they weren’t content to sit there and brood. They wanted to do things. They wanted to create lines of their own. They wanted to strive for truth and self-create their own individual destinies. The artist knew that someday, they’d find their way off the page. Today just wasn’t that day.

The unnamed artist put down his charcoal. He smiled to himself, and he waited.

Top 10 Blog Posts

So, in celebration of this blog finally reaching 50 (50!) posts, I figure that now is a good opportunity to look back on the posts that have, over time, proved to be my favorites.  Since Writings, Readings and Coffee Addictions began, I’ve blogged about a pretty big variety of topics, so narrowing it down was difficult…but it’s always fun to look back and reminisce.

So, starting from #10 (and with pictures!) here are my top 10:

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10. MBTI Typology – a recent post, but a lot of fun.  What I really enjoyed about this post was less the post itself, and more so the comments, interactions and replies from you guys.  Learning about other people’s types generally makes for a good time.

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9. Why David Lynch’s “Dumbland” is Smarter than it Looks – David Lynch is one of the most interesting, bizarre filmmakers around, and so writing about his work is always a unique experience, to say the least.

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8. Transhumanism in Deathlok: The Demolisher – Since this review was posted, Deathlok has jumped into the spotlight, thanks to his role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.  Still, I think that Marvel’s original cyborg is one of the most underrated characters in comicdom, and the 2010 limited series, Deathlok: The Demolisher is one of the best takes on the character yet.

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7. The True “Hero” of Breaking Bad – When the Breaking Bad finale came out, it was pretty much the only thing anyone could talk about – and with good reason.  This was my take on the series’ climax.

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6. Page 133 – One of my first posts, and still one of my favorites.  A short look at the writing process, writer’s block and how to push through it.

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5. Spider-Man 2: Because We Found the Rubber Band – Though the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks excellent, I don’t think there will ever be another Spidey film with the depth, quirkiness and heart of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, still one of the most unique comic book films ever made.    

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4. Chapter One, Page One – And here it is…my first post!  I remember struggling to figure out how to start, and once I was hit by the idea of just writing about the two voices debating back and forth in my head, well…all the pieces fell into place quickly afterward.

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3. Confronting the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster – As creative individuals, we all know this voice and have dealt with it in our own ways.  I just gave mine a name.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

2. The Writer’s Role in Society – Easily one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written, this is an in-depth look at what motivates the writer to create, where the writer’s crazy, crazy passion comes from, what drives us and finally, what our role in the world really is.

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1. Why I wrote The Cage Legacy – Definitely the most personal post I’ve ever written on this blog, “Why I wrote The Cage Legacy” is the story of how The Cage Legacy was created, where the idea came from and the struggles I went through in its years of development.  Out of every blog post I’ve ever written, this one was by far the hardest to write – and also the most worth it.

And so, there we are – the top 10.  As usual, if you guys have any thoughts/opinions/replies/concerns about my mental well-being/et cetera, always feel free to comment!

Hey, what’ve I been up to?

So, other than currently levitating somewhere between Mars and Earth while my astral projection explores Pluto, where have I been?  What have I been up to?  Quite a bit, actually.  I’ve spent a lot of time down in the Earth’s core, recently; in addition, I recently was bitten by a radioactive spider, struck by gamma rays and spent a weekend at some weird place called Crystal Lake, where hockey masks are apparently not too popular.

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The writing life is always a busy one.  As a writer, so much of one’s life is spent engaged in the most introspective activity imaginable – sitting alone in a room, reconstructing one’s most private thoughts – and somehow, while all of one’s writing projects are going on, the writer must also find time to experience life to the fullest – because that’s where writing inspiration comes from, of course! – and so one must regularly go out into the world, have new experiences, meet people, understand the fabric of society, the backbone of society, the guts of society, and all that other good stuff.  In addition, the writer must also go out and promote their work, although doing so is a challenge, since it requires a skill in extroversion that might initially be foreign to the introverted writer.  After a few runs, though, you slowly get the hang of it.  It’s actually pretty fun, and interacting with your readers is really one of the more amazing  experiences a writer can have.

So now, my friends, let me give you guys the update of what exactly I’m working on.

Since The Cage Legacy was finished, I’ve been privately slaving away here at the keyboard, actively developing multiple new novels.  I’m crazily enthusiastic to share these stories with you guys – when the right time comes.  I’m the sort of person who gets my work done way ahead of schedule.  I like getting a lot of work completed and packaged before I fully reveal my hand…so when it comes to writing, one might say I’m a bit of a workaholic.  This work ethic can get exhausting at times, but I do absolutely love writing, so it’s a very satisfying form of exhaustion.  Much better than other forms of exhaustion, anyway.

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So, without spilling too much, these are currently the three main projects that I’m actively developing:

Novel #2: Working on getting this one published. It’s insanely tempting to tell you guys all about this one – it’s an extremely exciting project, for me – but I’ll hold back, for now.

Novel #3: I’m currently editing this one, right now.  I can’t wait to share this one, as well.  It’s a pretty offbeat story, for sure.

Novel #4: First draft complete!  Looking forward to editing this one, sometime soon.

Since The Cage Legacy was released, I’ve often been asked – whether by emails from my readers, real life acquaintances and/or online contacts –  what I’m working on now, or if I have any other books coming out.  Ideally, this blog will explain things in a way that both answers the question, and more importantly, simplifies my often confusing and complicated answers.  From this point forward, I’ll try to use the above three “working titles” whenever I refer to one of my upcoming novels-in-progress.

Cheers!

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The Differing Temperaments of the United States

Many of you may have seen this back in October, but here’s a link to the original press release from the American Psychological Association: U.S. Regions Exhibit Distinct Personalities, Research Reveals

On that note, here’s the fun part: the pictures.

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It’s an interesting study, and well worth the read.  Having traveled all over the US – and especially having lived in all three “clusters,” at one time or another – I can’t help but grin at the accuracy of this.

Citing Your Creative Sources

Every artist has their sources.

It’s a truth that too many creators deny too often.  Sure, we all acknowledge the debt that we owe to real life, the true events that have inspired our stories – but for whatever reason, one generally wants to believe that he or she experiences divine moments of inspiration, devoid of the influence of outside media.  Somehow, one prefers to reject the notion that any books, comics, movies, TV shows and books have in any way helped influence the creator’s baby.

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Like this baby, for example.

But once again, I repeat – every artist has his sources.

Yes, this point may seem obvious.  It’s easy to say that we find inspiration in other forms of media, without acknowledging our debt to those specific works.  But really, it’s important to do so.  By recognizing which artistic works we were inspired by, we can both pay tribute to those works – and we can also successfully differentiate ourselves from them.  After all, there might only be a handful of different stories in the world, but what’s really important is how you make that story your own.

In Stephen King’s fifth Dark Tower book, Wolves of the Calla, there’s a great scene toward the end where Eddie – a former heroin addict – and Jake – the Gunslinger’s adopted son –are discussing the startlingly familiar traits of of the “Wolves,” a pack of bloodthirsty robots that  have been terrorizing the Calla for years. See, the Wolves are eerily familiar, in a number of ways.  For one, they utilize miniscule, golden hand grenades—grenades that they call “sneeches.”  At close quarters, the Wolves attack with energy swords.  Perhaps most significant of all, though, is the Wolves’ appearance.  They have robotic, humanoid bodies, and the only garments they wear are green cloaks, hoods and togas.   As Eddie tells Jake, these wolves look almost identical to a certain classic Marvel Comics super villain – a Latverian dictator known by the name of Doctor Doom.

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Art by Adi Granov.

Now, these traits aren’t simply coincidences; they’re actually a part of the plot.  As the Dark Tower series tells a tale that reaches across thousands of alternate universes, having references to such sources as Doom, the light sabers from Star Wars and the sneetch from Harry Potter actually makes sense, in the context of the story.  What’s most inspiring here, though, is the fact that Stephen King goes so far as to call himself out on these obvious sources of inspiration.  Through the mouths of Eddie and Jake, King displays a brave willingness to openly cite his sources, and he even allows the readers to take part in the game.

I remember the first time I read the Dark Tower series, I found this passage enormously inspiring.  I realized that the idea of a writer denying one’s sources of inspiration – the reality of what happens when a writer pretends that he or she isn’t influenced by the media he/she enjoys consuming – is a fabrication that people will always see right through.

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Art by Jae Lee.

Let’s face it.  Let’s face the truth.  Every artist is inspired by something.  Every artist has his/her favorite works of art; the creator doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and to pretend otherwise is to present a falsehood.

And see, this is what’s important, contradictory to what we might generally believe – originality isn’t found by having an “original idea,” originality is something that comes from the unique execution of an idea.  Believe in your concept—believe that, by telling it through your own voice instead of someone else’s, you can make it original—and then you’ll have something special.

-Nicholas Conley

Confronting the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster

So, before we get to the main subject of this post, let’s do a quick update: my first experience at Necon this past weekend was amazing.  Immediately upon driving down to Rhode Island and entering the doors of the convention center, I was bombarded by a truly astounding amount of friendliness, lively conversation, interesting fiction and remarkable artwork. As far as fiction cons go, Necon truly is one of a kind.

I won’t go into too much detail right now, as another website has asked me to do a write-up about my Necon experience (probably later this week), so I’m going to save most of my thoughts and recollections for that. For now, though, let me just say that Necon truly is an exceptional gathering of creative minds, getting together and openly exchanging thoughts, ideas, ridiculous jokes–and, of course, plenty of coffee and booze.  I’m definitely planning on a return trip.

Photograph taken by Jason Harris.

Photograph from Necon 33, taken by Jason Harris.

Now, since we’re already on the topic of creative writers, writing, fiction and so on (which just goes to prove the unfortunate stereotype about us writers having this exhausting need to talk about that goddamn writing business all the time), let’s take a moment to discuss something that all writers are far too familiar with:

The writing process.

Okay, fellow writers, let’s get honest.  I’m going to make a horrible confession.  I hear a voice in my head.  A (usually) small voice, but a dark, morose, scathing one that pops up from time to time.  Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“Oh, oh, oh!  Hey, you so-called writer!  Let me tell you, dear fellow/madam, this story you’re currently working on, this story you’ve poured your blood, guts and other sensitive organs into…well, it sucks!  Forget all the great things people have told you about your talent, your story is a complete waste of time.  In fact, everything you’ve ever written sucks, and all those ‘amazing’ story ideas in your head…well, you’re simply not capable of writing them.  You might as well give up now.  Now that I, the voice of the truth, have spoken, it’s time to give up on writing and go ahead and get a new job as a desk clerk, a banker or something serious like that, ya old potatah!”

Ideally, one would imagine this voice sounding a great deal like Albert Finney in the classic 1970 version of Scrooge.

Ideally, one would imagine this voice sounding a great deal like Albert Finney’s version of Scrooge. 

I’m betting that we all know that voice, all too well—and not just the writers among us either, but also the artists, musicians and all other creative types.  That voice is the bane of all creative minds, the horrible curse of self-loathing that our muses have bestowed upon us; personally, for the sake of this article, I’m going to name that voice the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster.

The Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster is something that almost all creative minds struggle with, and it’s likely the cause of many, many failed careers; it’s a terrifying demon that has stalled many aspiring writers, breaking them down with anxiety, self-consciousness and/or the dreaded “writer’s block,” to the point where these would-be-creators give up on their dreams.

One of Kurt Vonnegut's many self-portraits.

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s many self-portraits.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

While people may identity the Creative Monster by a myriad of different names, some more irreverent than others, familiarity with this demon is unanimous.  The topic of how a creative mind can possibly “get rid of” this voice is something that many fellow writers have discussed with me, especially those aspiring beginners who are just now considering writing their first novel.  In regards to that question, my answer is this:

No, you’ll never be free of your inner self-cannibal. But, with a little willpower, you can make it quiet down and mind its own business.

If not Scrooge, it's entirely possible that  your Creative Monster might more closely resemble this guy.

If not Scrooge, it’s entirely possible that your Creative Monster might have a closer resemblance to this guy.

That’s right.  There is no miracle cure.  The dreaded autocannibal will always be there, and it will always try to torture you; you can’t get rid of it.  But if you push forward anyway – if you block out the Creative Monster and refuse to listen to its mocking cries—you do, through sheer force of will, learn methods to deal with it, and you can overcome its influence.

First of all, in order to neutralize the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster’s power, we need to recognize that it’s not useful.  Now that we’ve identified that horrible voice in our head with a name, here’s the important thing to realize about that voice; even though our intuitive tendency is to believe that this voice is here to “help us,” or that it’s the “voice of reason” and that it exists only to make us better creators, that belief is in fact a complete misconception.  Yes, looking at one’s own work with a hard, critical eye is good, important and healthy…but in contrast, brutally decimating one’s own ego is NOT.  When we find ourselves doing the latter, it’s important that we recognize that this, right here, is the voice of the Creative Monster – and it’s even more important that we firmly recognize the fact that this monster never says anything worthwhile.  Nothing.  Nada.  In fact, its mocking voice really should be completely ignored, altogether.

This raises a dilemma, which we’ll now return to: isn’t self-criticism useful?  And how can we tell the difference between positive self-criticism and negative self-cannibalism? After all, if we, as writers (though again, this applies to any creative field) just thought everything we wrote was amazing and utterly flawless, we’d be delusional – and it’d make for some terrible terrible writing. We’d never improve our skills, never sharpen our tools, and never actually push ourselves to achieve the great writing we’re capable of.

Isn’t it important to see the flaws in one’s own work?   The answer is yes, but there’s an important difference here; positive self-criticism is constructive.  Unlike negative self-cannibalism, positive self-criticism builds towards improvement; it looks at the foundation of a work, takes what works, throws out the rest and then confidently seeks to improve what was there before.  Negative self-cannibalism, on the other hand, is deconstructive.  This self-cannibalism is like a person who simply blows up the entire building and then despairs over his or her supposed inability to ever create quality work.  Here, let me highlight the difference:

  • Negative self-cannibalism: “Okay, this isn’t working.  This piece has problems here, here…God, and here too! Damn it! I’ve totally failed at what I was trying to do.  It’s fucking terrible.  I need to give up, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write this correctly.”
  • Positive self-criticism: “Okay, this piece isn’t working, it has too many problems, and I know I can do so, so much better.  I’m going to take another look at this, throw out the bad parts and further develop what DOES work. I need to refocus, reorient and keep trying until this piece really shines.”
That's the spirit!

That’s the spirit!

One of these voices is ambitious – but also quite honest.  It’s the voice of someone who’s not afraid to criticize his/her own work, but is determined to make it better.  In contrast, the other voice is ridiculously defeatist.  Both voices recognize the flaws in the writer’s work, but one of these is actually helping, and the other voice is simply a bully, kicking the writer when he/she is already down.

So really, the solution is as simple as this: as creators, we should ignore the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster.  It has nothing worthwhile to say, and nothing it ever does will actually help us.  Its only purpose is to destroy the creator’s hopes and dreams; it has no interest in making us better creators. Instead, we should passionately believe in our dreams, and we should use that passion to reconstruct our flawed works until they become as perfect as humanly possible.

Yes, one should be aware enough to see the flaws in one’s work, but one should also be honest enough to see the good qualities, as well.

Be ambitious enough to push through those flaws, correct them and move on.  Believe in the message of your story – believe in your ability to tell that story – because if you don’t believe in it, no one else will.

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Now, the reason I’ve named the entity/voice/demon described in this blog, the reason I’ve referred to it by a silly moniker like the “Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster,” is because doing so allows me to externalize that voice.  It allows me to think of that voice as a separate entity from myself, instead of deceptively believing that it’s “the real me,” or the “voice of truth.”  By doing this – by seeing the self-cannibalistic voice as another person – it allows one to see how ridiculous and unlikable the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster really is.  Really, when it comes down to it, the Creative Monster is a very small, solipsistic and irritating character; he’s certainly not someone I’d ever want to have a beer with.  I’m going to close here with a quote by Mark Twain – a quote that, once we’ve externalized the self-cannibalistic voice and decided to view it as a separate person, really gets to the heart of the matter:

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“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

-Mark Twain

And now, with that said, I’m going to finish this blog, drink another cup of steaming hot coffee and get to work on some damn writing.  And if the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster doesn’t like it, well…too bad.

-Nicholas Conley